A Tale of Two Presidents: A Suggestion for the Fall Semester

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By Sam Anderson

Our former President, José Bowen, and current President, Kent Devereaux, have both made their way into the pages of major publications covering higher education’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The differences between their published comments thus far could not be more stark. 

In a recent article published in Inside Higher Ed on May 19 called “Is Higher Ed Asking the Wrong Questions?,” José writes, “sometimes it is better to accept that you will make mistakes and still act with urgency (and honesty that you do not know the future) and then iterate.” He follows with, “In the current circumstances, universities should vastly accelerate their capacity to be nimble.” His argument is that with so much uncertainty and ambiguity, it isn’t smart to replicate the residential learning community we had last fall, this time with new strict social protocols, rebranded as a “new normal.” Instead he says we should, “embrace a greater tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.” Contrast that notion with this quote that current President Kent Devereaux gave The Chronicle of Higher Education just over a month ago in an article written by Lee Gardner called “How College Leaders Are Planning for the Fall” and you’ll see just how disparate Jose and Kent’s thinking has been. “‘Don’t make any decision until you have to,’ he says. The longer you wait, the better your information will be. But when you make your decision, he adds, ‘be decisive and be clear, and make sure you’ve got your plans.’” Kent calls for decisiveness and clarity; José for ambiguity and uncertainty. In these circumstances, as a leader in higher education, you would want to make sure you get that ideological choice right. Probably, the answer lies somewhere between the two. If I have learned anything at Goucher, it’s that the world is too complex for binary choices like that one.

Kent’s quote leaves open the door to innovation. Later in the Chronicle article he goes on to stress the importance of planning ahead so that you always have, “a plan B in your pocket.” However, I would ask the reader to consider if they have seen anything so far that suggests an innovative response is forthcoming. The crisis management coming out of the Dorsey Center appears to be expressly focused on a “commitment to a residential experience” that seems more and more unrealistic with each passing day despite the best efforts of well-meaning staff and administrators. The associated health risks of returning to campus this fall are not worth the purported benefits of doing so. Goucher College’s decision makers should try their hand at adaptive leadership and consider what unexplored possibilities exist in this pandemic. 

If the college is truly committed to a residential experience, the necessary social distancing measures with strict enforcement will not provide that. Instead, the college ought to focus on making a semester or year spent online feel as “residential” as possible. First and foremost, the college must ensure that all students have a computer and ready access to the internet. Second, the college must ensure that all students have a safe place to stay. A few dorm rooms should be maintained on campus as was the case this semester for some international students who were unable to return to their homes. 

The college can become even more accessible than it ever has been before. Going online eliminates many physical barriers and if ACE and the Office of Accessibility Services are brought in now, the challenges of online learning that students have experienced this semester can be accommodated for. 

Student leaders should be trained on facilitating virtual spaces, as should all student-facing staff, and the Office of Student Engagement should continue their effective virtual outreach through office hours and special events. Zoom common rooms can host dinners and game nights while Zoom study rooms provide a quiet place to work with friends. If and when professional sports return, a virtual P-Selz lobby could host a watch party. RAs can check in with their “residents” online and host virtual versions of the events they would host on campus while First Year Mentors build virtual communities and ensure we retain the future residents of 1021 Dulaney Valley Road long enough for them to get there safely. 

As much as possible, the college should seek ways to transition staff and student employment into this new online campus, even if it means transforming one’s role. Students who rely on work study in order to attend Goucher might be forced into a precarious choice between health and education if campus opens in the fall. Those students might be more inclined to come back not because they feel it best to return but because they need the money offered in on-campus employment to continue their studies. New opportunities for employment will likely emerge in a truly innovative online environment and these roles should be offered to students who qualify for federal work study first. 

Finally, the main hallmarks of the college would not have to be sacrificed in a temporary shift online. Global education could remain a focus for the college over this next semester or year. What provides more global access than the internet? Let’s invite the universities we partner with internationally for study abroad to collaborate on spaces for virtual learning open to students of both institutions.

No solution anyone comes up with for next semester will be perfect. I am absolutely not suggesting we make a shift online permanently. I am asking that before we commit too heavily to physically showing up in late August, we imagine what is possible if our community comes together in the best way we can right now. This fall, let’s live and learn together while remaining apart, and let’s create some more equity in higher ed in the process.

Sources:

Bowen, José A. “Is Higher Ed Asking the Wrong Questions?” Inside Higher Ed. May 19, 2020. www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/05/19/longer-term-questions-colleges-should-be-asking-response-pandemic-opinion

Gardner, Lee. “How College Leaders Are Planning for the Fall.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 17, 2020. www.chronicle.com/article/How-College-Leaders-Are/248554

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